Monday, September 13, 2010

Blogging Day Two

Subtitled: Before Peter there were only icons, the root of understanding, that’s why I did this, understanding the icons, and what would you give Mama?

Truly, there is no sleep as good as the first sleep of jetlag. I laid down last night right when I logged off here and I remember nothing else until 5:00 a.m. when the bathroom called. I didn’t think I’d get back to sleep again, but I did, and slept right to the alarm at 7:30. When I woke up, I felt great, even though it was 11:30 p.m. to my body. Odd.

I still live in fear of the water here. Everyone I talked to and everything I read warned me that under no conditions should I drink the tap water, not even to brush teeth or in the shower to rinse whatever may be near my mouth. So taking a shower in the world’s smallest shower, holding my breath and not opening my mouth, is a challenge to say the least.

Breakfast this morning was included in my room rate. There was a fine assortment of food: corn flakes, porridge, Vienna sausages, meat and cheese, bread and yogurt. I had cereal, bread, yogurt and two Vienna sausages, just to say I tried them. Also two glasses of OJ, which tasted spectacular for some reason.

I met my guide in the lobby at 10. I believe her name is Katerina. I can’t for the life of me remember for sure. She is probably in her early 30s and like me (who as we know bid adieu to 30s recently), a single chick. This became more apparent later on. We went outside where HELL-O! Sergei the hottt driver from yesterday is back. See, I have no problem remembering the hottt driver’s name! Anyway, off we went on our city tour. I’m not sure what they expected me to do yesterday on my own, but they were surprised that I’d already covered as much ground as I did. So we blew by a lot of the sites I’d seen yesterday.

Our first big stop was at Peter and Paul fortress, which is like Tower of London, only smaller and has less to it. There’re some quarters for the staff and the cathedral and the national mint. The fortress is out on an island, but it was never actually used as a fortress. It was, however, a political prison. The cathedral is where the whole Romanov family is buried as well as all the tsars. It was sort of poignant to see the Romanovs there after having read the book about their last year and being so affected by it.

Next stop was to St. Isaac's Cathedral, the fourth largest in the world after Rome, London and Florence. This really was pretty and reminded me a lot of St. Paul’s in London. The iconostasis is all mosaics with malachite and lapis columns, just gorgeous. Apparently after the war, they removed a Foucaults pendulum which hung from the center of the dome and replaced it with a stained glass dove. Both here and in the cathedral in the fortress, there was a pulpit, which is not used in Russian orthodox churches because everyone, including the priest, worships at the same level. The reason why the pulpit was there in either place was because the architects were French or Italian.

When they were done showing me all of central St. P, I went on my own to Kazan Cathedral and the State Museum. The museum is all Russian art, and I have realized that before Peter the Great, it was all icons. Then when he came to power, he sent a bunch of artists to Italy and Holland, and they came back painting like artists we know elsewhere. There was one painting I’d seen around town on various signs and swore it was a Sargent. But instead it was an artist named Serov. I didn’t instantly recognize anything, which, coupled with the intense heat of this museum, made it hard to tolerate as the last visit on a jam-packed day.

The Kazan Cathedral experience was emotionally intense and I wasn't quite prepared for it. I have visited a Museum of Russian Icons at home, but even after that, I still couldn't quite grasp the whole icon thing. But this cathedral has Our Lady of Kazan up on the altar. When I walked in, the line in front of the icon was over 50 people long, and the faithful wait in line patiently, then climb the steps up, cross themselves three times, kiss the icon, say their prayers and just meditate. When they walked away it was a mixture of just complete sadness or weariness or relief. It was just something to see, that whatever they seemed to need from that icon, they were just so earnest in their attempts to get it. I'd never seen anything like that at home.

Oh, and ok, so we’re walking around both the cathedral at the fortress and St. Isaac’s and even on my own in the museum, and in each case, we’re just getting trampled by these tour groups. 25-30 people, all either getting yelled at by a guide at the top of her lungs, or roaming like drones following a colored umbrella from point A to point B as they listen to the guide over headphones from a point that perhaps they haven’t even made it to yet. They aren’t interacting, either with each other or with the guide. It was right then, or perhaps when I saw them all piling back on the bus to move to the next sight en masse, that I realized I made the right decision taking this trip the way I am. I get to talk to my guide, ask questions, take detours, take pee breaks...all when I need to, not the when the group or the guide of the group decides it is time. For me, that is worth the price of admission right there. Well, that and hottt Sergei.

So for food today, I had a great cheese pie (like cheesecake in pastry) for lunch at a small coffee bar that my guide found. Dinner tonight was a Georgian meal at Kavkaz Bar (Ul. Karavannaya 18). I had cheese bread (like pita fried with goat cheese in the middle), meat dumplings and tomato/onion salad with olive oil and some spicy red pepper.

My guide is really good about answering questions that I might not want to ask older people. So I dug into what it was like to be here when Communism fell, how things have changed, how she feels now about it. She told me that her mother used to wait in any line coming out of a shop because even if she didn’t know why people were waiting, it had to be good if there was a line. Her grandmother, on the other hand, would only wait if she knew what she was waiting for and knew that she wanted whatever it is.

Believe it or not she said there were some good things about it (everyone had free medical care and it was good, better than they have now, and it was incredibly safe and drug and crime free then too). But the one thing that struck me is that she said "we knew we lived on this planet, but we were not allowed beyond our borders. But then we never even thought about leaving or that it would ever be possible." She said since they've been allowed out, they go as much as they can. Her parents, who I assume are about my parents' age, go somewhere different every time because they are afraid that someday they'll not be let out again. We also talked a lot about figure skating (she was impressed that I can name every Russian back to Rodnina and Zaitsev in 1980!). We watched a wedding at a church we were in and commented on how the groom looked so much older and happier than the bride. She says that's not common and as it was such a small party, it was probably a shotgun wedding, which would explain why the mother looked pissed.

I did a bit of shopping today. The guide took me to an off the beaten path place where I found some matroyshka and a music box I wanted. And I finally found amber that I liked, and got a pendant for each of Abby, Mom and me.

I stopped in a liquor shop and had a mixed conversation in English and Russian with the old ladies about what the best vodka is. They pointed out several, one of which I saw in duty free the other day. I asked "what is your favorite?" The lady says "I drink it all, anything." Well, I guess I set myself up for that response. So I said "My mama said bring her the best vodka, what do you bring your mama?" and she went right to the top of the shelf. Cross your fingers it makes it home in my luggage. I bought it here because it was cheaper than duty free in Germany.

That's it for now. Early to bed tonight and a bit of a lie in tomorrow. We leave here at 10 a.m. for the Hermitage. I’m going to the mothership of art. Woooo hoooo!

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